Warning: Spoilers ahead!
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Co-directed by Deepa Mehta and based on journalist Prayaag Akbar’s eponymous book, the six-part Netflix original series is set in 2047, a century after India’s Independence. It’s the story of a mother searching for her long-lost daughter against the backdrop of a totalitarian government. India is Aryavarta (Sanskrit for the land of the Aryans), a state ruled by the despotic Joshi (Sanjay Suri).
The gap between haves and have-nots is extreme. The affluent live in gated neighbourhoods fenced by high walls while the underprivileged struggle for basic necessities on the fringes of the city beyond the garbage dump. The air in the city is polluted, potable water is scarce, so much so that people are willing to kill each other over it. Joshi controls the populace by enforcing a strict communal code: men and women from different faiths cannot inter-marry.
Shalini (Huma Qureshi) transgresses this rule by marrying Rizwan Chowdhury (Rahul Khanna), a Muslim. They have a daughter, Leila (Leysha Mange). The state punishes them murdering Rizwan and abducting Shalini and taking her to a camp where she’s subjected humiliating rituals. She escapes after two years only to realise that the world as she knew it has ceased to exist.
Leila is particularly relevant at this time in Indian history, when the dominance of the right wing has unleashed the majority’s violent, sectarian impulses. Shalini’s scenario is entirely believable given that ‘love jihad’ is a real danger for mixed couples from conservative families. However the vision of dystopia that’s presented is all too familiar. The internment camps, the humiliating practices captives are subjected to are tropes we’ve seen many times in many movies. The most immediate comparison will be to the 2017 show The Handmaid’s Tale. Some of these rituals fail to shock as the disfranchised suffer worse indignities today.
It’s also strange that in such a controlled environment Shalini faces such little struggle while attempting to escape the camp. She manages to hide easily, people are ready to help her and she’s always at the right place at the right time.
The makers could’ve been more imaginative with technology. It’s hard to believe that in roughly 30 years, hand-held phones will be as cumbersome as glass slabs. The story unfolds like a thriller with frequent flashbacks taking the viewer into Shalini’s happy past. Yet there are moments at which Leila seems over-long, and the cliffhangers fail to take you to the edge of your seat. The strong supporting cast helps you make it to the finish line, especially Arif Zakaria as Dr. Iyer, the baleful head of the indoctrination camp referred to as Guru Ma. And Siddharth, who plays Bhanu, Shalini’s state-appointed escort.
Leila couldn’t be truer to its time. But the dystopian cliches mitigate the scary vision of a future, right wing India.